The end of consumerism

| 16th April 2009
Last month my friend Satish Kumar said in Sustained magazine that the happiest people are those who live close to the land and use their hands – craftspeople and farmers. As a naturalist, keen gardener and soon-to-be vegetable-plot devotee, this resonates with me.

It also tallies with the evidence from wellbeing studies which show that people who live their lives framed around extrinsic values of self-focus, image, greed and acquisition, and are suffering from ‘affluenza’, are diminishing their own wellbeing as well as those around them. They also tend to have far higher environmental footprints than others. Conversely, those whose lives are focused on intrinsic values such as personal (not economic) growth, emotional intimacy and community involvement, have far higher levels of wellbeing and lower footprints.

It’s more complex than saying they are ‘happier’, but they certainly experience far more ‘flow’ in work and play, better relationships and balance – things to which we could all aspire. The philosopher Aristotle had lots to say about wellbeing. In his view, to be a flourishing individual – one who experiences high levels of ‘meaning’ and wellbeing – you should aspire to be an active participant in the flourishing of community. So Thatcher had it all wrong: there really is such a thing as society, and it matters that we are active citizens striving for the good of the wider community, not just in an enlightened self-interest manner but in a deeper manner that respects the lives of all.

In, an online e-draft wiki book that I am currently writing with a friend, Robert Phillips, we call for a shift in societal values away from the consumer in us all to citizen values and advocacy for change. In short we are saying you are not what you buy. But it’s hard to get that message heard amid the cacophony of background noise and brainprint of the advertising world.

These are things I take as self evident – but don’t just listen to me: others have said it far more eloquently. Playwright Dennis Potter said in 1994 in Seeing the Blossom: ‘The commercialisation of everything means of course you’re putting a commercial value on everything. And you turn yourself from a citizen into a consumer’. Booker Prize-winning novelist Ben Okri said in the Times in October 2008: ‘The meltdown in the economy is a harsh metaphor of the meltdown of some of our value systems. Individualism has been raised almost to a religion, appearance made more important than substance. The only hope lies in a fundamental re-examination of the values that we have lived by in the past 30 years’.

Vaclav Havel has stated beautifully the fundamental shift that is needed: ‘What could change the direction of today’s civilization? It is my deep conviction that the only option is a change in the sphere of the spirit, in the sphere of human conscience. It’s not enough to invent new machines, new regulations, new institutions. We must develop a new understanding of the true purpose of our existence on this Earth. Only by making such a fundamental shift will we be able to create new models of behaviour and a new set of values for the planet’. For Havel, our refreshingly outspoken bishops and many others, the environmental crisis is ultimately a crisis of the spirit.

One of my heroes, Aldo Leopold, the father of the land ethic, wrote to a friend that he doubted anything could be done about conservation ‘without creating a new kind of people’, and in the must-read A Sand County Almanac, from 1949, that ‘a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it… it implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such’. And as Professor Tim Jackson says, ‘the transition to a sustainable society cannot hope to proceed without the emergence or re-emergence of some kinds of meaning structures that lie outside the consumer realm’. Brilliant thinkers such as Dr Tom Crompton at WWF are doing crucial work on these questions. We must urgently spread the conversation.

Right now there is a terrifying vacuum of values, vision and leadership in our political discourse and from our politicians. And it’s hard for business to do the right thing when it’s designed to make money and little else, and when the market is set up so perversely. Our politicians are (to borrow a phrase from the wonderful Thomas Homer-Dixon) like drunk drivers in the fog. Harvard Professor John Quelch’s 2008 study Too Much Stuff says: ‘The mass consumption of the 1990s is fast fading in the rearview mirror. Now a growing number of people want to declutter their lives and invest in experiences rather than things’.

And Jeremy Paxman has told us that we are witnessing the ‘end of capitalism’. Our current form of corporate-consumer-capitalism has been shown to be what many of us knew it was: a fundamentally flawed system.

Luckily just the kind of citizen renaissance we need is beginning with groups like CRAGs and Transition Towns – described by Jeremy Leggett as ‘scalable microcosms of hope’. And online digital democracy is giving individual citizens and collectives a new voice and real power in politics.,,, and are names that if you have not heard of you soon will have. What do I think all this citizen power needs to call for? Well, it’s nothing short of a radical updating of our current operating system – no sticking plaster will do. We urgently need a Green New Deal to act as a transition phase to a steady state, economic development (not growth) paradigm that aims to maximise the wellbeing of people and planet, not the bank balances of the rich. And we must beware the snake-oil salespeople trying to fl og us the dead-ends of green consumerism and cheatneutral ‘offsets’. Those are phoney solutions just as dangerous as what most of our current myopic flock of politicians would sell us.

Wake up, get angry (in a positive way), unite and become a citizen. It’s our only hope. Oh, and take a look at my book I would love your feedback.

Jules Peck is a freelance writer and citizen with 20 years experience advising NGOs, government and the corporate world.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2009

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